Friday, 11 June 1999

O. Henry: The Gentle Grafter (1902)

Edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co.
Review number: 270

This particular collection of O. Henry's short stories was the first one I read, many years ago, and it remains one of his best in my opinion. Like earlier collections, the stories share a common theme. In this case, though, the theme itself helps to prevent the descent into sentimentality which is Henry's main fault as far as modern readers are concerned. The world portrayed by The Gentle Grafter is that of the small time conman; the stories generally describe a particular deception.

The stories - all but one - share a main character, Jeff Peters. This adds cohesion to the collection, something which Henry takes further in Cabbages and Kings, which lies between a novel and a short story in form. Jeff Peters is a conman with a conscience, which makes him a sympathetic rather than a villainous character. Some of his conscience is more humorous than moral, like his insistence that none of his customers go away completely empty handed, even if what they receive bears no relation in value to the amount of money they have been parted from. On the other hand, he does refuse to cheat widows or orphans, an at one point when he discovers that his partner in one scam has done just that he insists that all the money is returned.

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